‘Close’ Director Lukas Dhont Describes How a Fateful Train Ride Led to His Film’s Success

TheWrap magazine: The 31-year-old Belgian director talks about how he portrays friendship and tenderness in his moving new film

Eden Dambrine (center) in "Close" (A24)

A version of this story about “Close” first appeared in the International Race issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.

The second film by Belgian director Lukas Dhont, “Close” focuses on a friendship between two 13-year-old boys (newcomers Eden Dambrine and Gustav De Waele) and a rift that divides them. The touching, delicate drama reduced the audiences to tears during its premiere at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, where Dhont received the Grand Prix. (Four years ago, his first film “Girl” won the festival’s Camera d’Or for best debut feature.)

Now the film has been selected as Belgium’s official entry for the Best International Feature Film category at this year’s Oscars. Belgium has been nominated seven times but has yet to win, a stat that could very well change with “Close” at next March’s awards. Some pundits have even speculated whether Dhont might land in the best director lineup – joining the six foreign-language filmmakers (Alfonso Cuarón, Pawel Pawlikowski, Bong Joon-ho, Lee Isaac Chung, Thomas Vinterberg, Ryusuke Hamaguchi) who have been nominated in the past four years.

On the eve of the film’s theatrical release (A24 is the U.S. distributor), the 31-year-old Dhont spoke with TheWrap about his inspirations for the film. And how those mythical stories about how actors get discovered, like, say, randomly on a passenger train, are actually sometimes true.

The film follows two best friends on the verge of adolescence. What inspired the story?

There is a book that really nourished the writing of the film called “Deep Secrets” by an American professor named Niobe Way. She spent five years studying the lives of American boys, and she found that when the boys were 13, they spoke about their male friends with these tender testimonies of love. There was no stigma around it. Then at 15 and at 18 she re-asks them the same questions and you feel a general wave of them not willing to talk with the same intimacy and emotion. They’ve distanced themselves from that vulnerable, tender language.

How did you personally react to reading that?

I was heartbroken. I didn’t grow up in America, I’m from the Flemish countryside, and I also grew up queer, but I felt like I went through a very similar experience. At a certain point in my puberty, I distanced myself not only from young men but from all people around me, because I also felt those pressures of masculinity. In many ways, it has nothing to do with sexuality. It is how we perceive these expressions of tenderness and how we immediately want to categorize them.

Is the professor who wrote the book aware of your film?

She does know about the film. A friend of hers had told her that I discussed her work so she reached out to me on Instagram. Now we text every day and she’s over the moon about it. We are going to hang out when I come to NewYork. There is a crisis of masculinity and she shows us where that starts, and her research has been pivotal to me in understanding the nuances.

And it helped you sense the potential for a film on that subject?

Yes, I understood I wanted to make a film about a strong connection between young men where we would allow the space to be tender and intimate and sensual even, which you don’t always get to see. Then show what the loss of tenderness and loss of connection means to us as human beings.

In the film, these two boys notice that their friendship is categorized as romantic by other classmates, simply because they’re close.

Exactly. I wanted to make a film about a strong connection between young men, where we allow the space to be tender and intimate and sensual even, which you don’t always get to see. Then show what the loss of connection means to us as human beings. And as I figured out the whole arc of the story, I thought a lot about these two words—fragility and brutality—as the themes I wanted to explore.

How did you discover the young actor Eden Dambrine, who is so natural and affecting in the lead role of Léo?

On a train, actually. It’s the type of story that when I read about it, I don’t believe it. I was sitting on a train from Antwerp to Ganz and listening to Max Richter music. Everything becomes a film when you’re listening to Max Richter. I looked beside me and there was a boy talking with his friends and I couldn’t hear what he was saying, but he was very expressive with his big eyes and he was clearly making a point. And I felt like, “This is one of those moments. If you don’t say anything now, you will regret it.”

What did you say to him?

I asked if he was interested in acting. He clearly expressed his interest in it. His friends were going through the roof too. There was an advantage because I’d already made a feature film and his mother could Google me. Ultimately we saw hundreds of boys, but Eden and (costar) Gustav (De Waele) gravitated towards each other and were helping each other. There felt like a possibility of collaboration and friendship, which was so important for the film to succeed. And they were just so thrilled to be in a film. They were in it to win it.

Léo’s family lives and works on a flower farm, and several scenes take place among the fields. What was the significance of that setting for you?

When I was very early in thinking about the story, one of the first thing to go on my mood board was an image of two boys running amidst flowers. I grew up in the countryside and there was a lot of nature. That was a key memory that I kept from childhood. And the flower is also a symbol of fragility. In terms of the structure and the plot points, there was a realization that the film needs to start with fragility and tenderness and then move to a point where those things are broken down in society.

About halfway through the film, there is a plot point that changes the direction of the story.

Well, when that plot point arrives, it is a way of radically expressing the importance of the boys’ connection. We were also all going through the pandemic and a theme that became more present, dramaturgically, was grief. We focus a lot on physical heath and mental health still comes second. When we do screenings with young people, you can feel that this idea really comes up among them. 

Director Lukas Dhont (Photographed by Lenka Ulrichova for TheWrap)

The film begins and ends in the flower fields, though the two scenes are quite different. Without being too specific, can you say what you wanted to achieve with the ending?

Well, we watch the farm over the course of a whole season, with the vivid colors of the field changing to the brutality of machines in this brown atmosphere. But what I love about the ending is that there’s a possibility of a return to that earlier fragility, to that tenderness, to that world that we saw in the beginning. On the other hand, I wanted to say that so many of us don’t have certain people in our lives anymore, but there is a possibility to carry them within us. That is a strong, hopeful realization and there is a beauty to that idea that I love.

Read more from the International Race issue here

Catie Laffoon for TheWrap